The skill sets in your technology team should probably look much different today than even five years ago. To help frame this argument, let’s look at recent trends in small and medium business (SMB’s) technology over the past few years.
The pandemic proved that employees in most businesses could be effective working remotely. The decade long debate over the productivity of at-home workers became a moot point in a matter of weeks. COVID has changed the way we use technology for work.
COVID also accelerated the move to the cloud. The question of security in the cloud was trumped by the advantages it brings, especially for a remote and mobile workforce. Infrastructure moved out of the office server closet and into the ether.
Wireless access points
Along with the servers, the banks of switches are moving out of the closet. All the wires connecting the desktop computers are no longer needed as so many people have wireless laptops now. And many people will never return to the brick-and-mortar office.
Most businesses have a core business software application unique to their industry. Whether you are running a retail store or a manufacturing plant, there are several software vendors who target your business. In the past, these applications required multiple servers to be maintained by their clients. Today, to be competitive, these developers have moved their products to the cloud for quicker and cheaper deployment.
Automated network management tools
To keep a computer network secure and efficient today, you must have computers manage the computers. The repetitive tasks for updates, patching, monitoring, and managing threats are too numerous to be done by hand. Software utilizing artificial intelligence is infinitely better than a technician with a keyboard.
Not long ago, computers could be fixed by replacing parts. Today, most companies are using laptops with standardized software and configurations. These newer machines can simply be swapped for replacements if they have a failure.
The processing power of modern smart phones and tablets comes very close to typical laptops. Given the recent advancement of business apps on mobile devices, workers in many industries don’t need networked computers anymore.
What does this mean for technology staffing?
The overarching trend in these trends is that the network infrastructure is disappearing. In a world of laptops and cloud there is very little company owned network equipment. Yet most small IT departments are still geared up for implementing, fixing, and maintaining hardware.
In illustration, here is a list of job requirements for a network administrator for a small IT department (recently stolen from Indeed, the huge job site):
- Maintaining computer networks and systems including software, servers, VPNs, routers, and other physical hardware
- Installing and configuring network equipment to update or fix hardware or software issues
- Updating virus protection software to keep data and communications protected
- Monitoring computer systems to improve network performance for computer systems and networks
- Communicating networking issues to other employees and management, especially in training new users
- Fixing software and hardware configuration issues for users on-demand or from inspection of the systems
Given the recent trends above, it is easy to see that the skills in the list above are becoming obsolete. Or at least, it is no longer a full-time job. Yet this remains a typical list of requirements when replacing a senior member of the IT staff.
Computer people are expensive, so it is especially important that their skill sets match the true requirements of the business. The question becomes, “if I don’t need the network/hardware skills, what technology resources do I need?”
To answer this question, let’s look at some other recent trends in SMB technology:
Other Recent Trends
Most businesses have made the switch to Office365 for email. They may even use Sharepoint and Teams, but it is unlikely that the full benefit of customizing these applications has been realized. Also, there are a dozen other O365 apps that can be integrated into your business.
There has been a proliferation of easy-to-use data analysis tools that enhance core business applications such as accounting, CRM, and ERP. Building real time dashboards, charts, graphics, and tabular reports has never been easier.
Webhooks are an easy way to get one cloud system talking to another without programming. In other words, cloud-based applications can exchange data in real time with very little technical setup. This can greatly reduce manual re-entry of information and combine reporting from different cloud systems.
Companies have been concerned about cybersecurity for some time now, but more recently firms are asked to provide proof. Insurance companies, industry organizations, and government agencies are requiring companies to certify their security practices.
Proliferation of recorded video
The sudden transition to teleconferencing has produced an enormous amount of data especially video. The recording of meetings can have a great benefit, but it can also be risky. Management and security of meeting recordings is a new issue that few companies have the policies and procedures in place to control.
New information privacy laws, cyber security breaches, and internal fraud have brought this concept to the forefront recently. Companies are much more aware of who has access to what information and why.
Onboarding new employees in a traditional office environment has been informal in SMBs. But with new hires that are remote, the process needs to be formal, and have all the technological implications in place.
Outsourcing for Specific Skills
Connection sites like Upwork have made it possible for SMBs to connect with contract employees for specific skills on a project or hourly basis. Rather than having employees, companies are contracting with individuals and companies instead of hiring. We believe that there are two types of technology support in IT departments—functional support and technical support. The difference between these two types of support is well documented in a previous blog post which can be found here. But for this discussion, here are the basics:
An IT services team provides functional support to guide the specific use of specific applications needed by a business. Functional IT support configures systems according to business needs and helps develop processes to manage the day-to-day functioning of a program or system.
Functional support is very specific to the business itself and the industry in which it competes.
In contrast to functional support, the IT support service team provides technical support for issues related to computer network infrastructure.
Technical support is not so specific to the company in the sense that the covered network products are widely used throughout many companies and industries.
Robotic Process Automation
Robotic process automation (RPA) is a software technology that makes it easy to build, deploy, and manage software robots that emulate human’s actions interacting with digital systems and software. That’s right! Basic repetitive business tasks handled by people can now be automated.
What is the difference between the roles of functional vs. technical support resources?
The following table shows how the support roles can differ. The duties for each category are presented as examples and not as a comprehensive listing.
Functional support is unique to the mission of your company. It is best handled by internal resources steeped in your company goals, culture, and organization. Functional support requires advanced skills in business, communication, project management, and information management. Functional support also requires leadership.
Technical support is not unique to your company but lives in a world of its own filled with jargon and mystery. It is best handled by external resources with deep technical knowledge of the ever-expanding universe of products and services available today. Technical support requires teams of interlocking experts and procedures who have cyber experience well beyond the boundaries of your company.
In the past, SMBs needed knowledgeable technical support people because companies were required to build and support their own infrastructure. And these support people needed to be immediately available because these internally built networks were fragile. Any breakdowns needed to be addressed immediately on site—most often with screwdrivers!
Today this is no longer true. The infrastructure has been built by the best technology minds in the world—Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Verizon, and others. Although not immune to downtime, these public clouds are engineered to the highest standards available. SMBs can instantaneously buy these resources monthly and never again worry about extended outages or major upgrades.
The “T” in “IT” is no longer the focus for SMBs. Managed Services Providers (MSPs) can be outsourced to effectively provide this instant infrastructure and provide a variety of technical support services to keep the virtual lights on and the virtual doors locked. They can also provide cyber security well beyond the capabilities of a small IT staff.
It is the “I” in “IT” that needs to be the focus now. It is time to understand the information that your company needs to acquire, process, and produce for your competitive advantage. You likely have purchased applications and capabilities that are very underutilized. Effective utilization of these tools is your ticket to improved communication, accountability, and organizational efficiencies. The only way to do this is to alter the way you spend your IT budget.
Spend more on the “I” and less on the “T”. Turn all aspects of your technology infrastructure over to an MSP. They are better and cheaper. Spend the rest on functional support by hiring business technology people who understand that information, not technological infrastructure, is the key to business success.